The term ‘voluntary agreement’ usually refers to an agreement between the European social partners that is largely the outcome of negotiations between representative social partner organisations rather than being the result of a political decision-making process conducted exclusively within the framework of the official EU institutions (the European Commission, Council of the European Union and European Parliament). The process for producing and implementing such agreements is set out in EU law (Articles 154 and 155 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU)). The main feature of voluntary agreements is that they are implemented not by EU law but ‘in accordance with the procedures and practices specific to management and labour and the Member States’ (Article 155(2) of the TFEU). The term ‘voluntary agreement’ is used for early texts of this nature (agreements on telework and stress at work), but the social partners switched to the term ‘autonomous agreements’ for subsequent EU-level framework agreements.
Background and status
Since the 1990s, the EU has been developing a new regulatory policy, with an increasing emphasis on the use of alternative instruments that are complementary to traditional legislation. These instruments, which are of a less compelling or non-governmental nature, are often referred to as ‘soft law’, ‘self-regulation’ or ‘co-regulation’. Voluntary agreements are a typical result of these alternative forms of multi-level governance. The aim of diversifying regulatory instruments is mainly to enhance the effectiveness, legitimacy and transparency of EU action and to follow the principles of conferred powers, subsidiarity and proportionality in the EU legislative process.
Such framework agreements, whether referred to as voluntary or autonomous, are voluntary in the sense that the social partners can enter into negotiations on them with or without Commission involvement, and the social partners, rather than the EU institutions, are responsible for their implementation.
Voluntary agreements signed
The European social dialogue is one of the major examples of this mode of alternative governance; in its 2002 communication The European Social Dialogue, a force for innovation and change, the Commission states that social dialogue is a ‘key to better governance’ and asks for an increased level of involvement of the social partners ‘on a voluntary basis’.
- European Commission: The European Social Dialogue, a force for innovation and change (COM(2002) 341 final)
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The agreement on the regulation of telework was a landmark, as it was the first agreement to be implemented by means of procedures and practices specific to management and labour and the Member States rather than by Council decision. Two consultations of the European social partners by the Commission based on Article 138 of the Treaty establishing the European Community (now Article 154 of the TFEU) took place and, after eight months of negotiations, the agreement was formally signed in July 2002. The agreement includes a definition of telework and regulates employment conditions for teleworkers, health and safety, training and collective rights.
- ETUC and others: Framework agreement on telework
The 2004 Commission communication Partnership for change in an enlarged Europe – Enhancing the contribution of European social dialogue, places a special emphasis on voluntary agreements (termed ‘autonomous agreements’ in the communication).
- European Commission: Partnership for change in an enlarged Europe – Enhancing the contribution of European social dialogue (COM(2004) 557 final)
The second voluntary agreement had its origins in a social partner consultation launched by the Commission in 2002 on stress and its effects on health and safety at work. The European social partners had also included the issue of work-related stress in their work programme for 2003–2005. In October 2004, they signed an autonomous agreement on work-related stress. The agreement defines work-related stress and gives some guidance on measures to prevent, eliminate or reduce it.
- ETUC and others: Framework agreement on work-related stress
From voluntary to autonomous agreements
In January 2006, the European social partners agreed on a proposal for a work programme for 2006–2008, which included the conclusion of two ‘autonomous’ framework agreements similar to those on telework and work-related stress. The social partners had decided to use the term ‘autonomous agreements’ for future European framework agreements, retaining the use of ‘voluntary agreement’ for the two already signed. One of these new framework agreements was on harassment and violence at work (signed in April 2007) and the other on inclusive labour markets (signed in March 2010).
Since then, only two more cross-industry autonomous agreements have been signed, on active ageing and an intergenerational approach, in March 2017, and on digitalisation, in June 2020. The work programme for 2019–2021 does not include negotiation of further autonomous agreements.